Feelings in A Course in Miracles

by Robert Perry

In my opinion, the perspective of A Course in Miracles on feelings is quite different from popular psychological views in our culture. In what follows, I'll try to clarify the differences.

Popular "truth": Feeling is superior to thought, heart is superior to mind.

In spiritual circles, it is virtually a truism that feeling is more spiritual than thought. If, at a spiritual gathering, someone acknowledges the superiority of feeling over thought, everyone nods and murmurs in approval. Would everyone nod if someone said the reverse: "Hey, you are too into your feelings. You really need to get out of your heart and into your head!"

Course teaching: "Mind" and "heart" are interchangeable.

There are eight places in the Course where the words "mind" and "heart" appear in the same sentence ( W-pI.62.5:5; W-pI.185.14:1; W-pI.200.10:6>; W-pII.221.1:3; W-pII.286.1:8; W-pII.334.2:3; W-pII.336.2:2; M-23.4:6). Interestingly, in these eight passages, heart is never elevated above mind; it is never even contrasted with mind. In every passage, the two words are actually interchangeable, as you can see in this example: "My heart is quiet, and my mind at rest" (W-pII.286.1:8).

Popular "truth": To get to the real story, we have to go beneath our thoughts to find the feelings.

If you want to know what is really happening with someone, you might say, "Don't tell me what you are thinking. Tell me what you are feeling." Feelings seem to be the heart of the matter. Thoughts are like a swarm of gnats that just get in the way.

Course teaching: Feelings are caused by thoughts.

We may think there is some true place in us where we can contact pure feelings, stripped clean of those polluting thoughts. According to the Course, there is no such thing as a feeling that is free of thought. In fact, the Course teaches that all feelings are the effect of thoughts. Having a feeling without a thought would like having an echo without the original sound. You can see the cause-and-effect connection in these passages:

It is always an interpretation that gives rise to negative emotions. (M-17.4:2)

It is but your thoughts that bring you fear. (W-pI.196.7:3)

Isn't this our experience? When we change our overall interpretation of a situation—our thought about it—our feelings about it change automatically.

Popular "truth": Feelings and thoughts are different things, different animals.

At the very least, we know that thoughts and feelings are very different kinds of things that come from different parts of us.

Course teaching: Feelings are thoughts; a feeling is just the "flavor" of a thought

The Course speaks of "thoughts of anger" (W-pI.21.3:1), "fear thoughts" (three references), "fearful thoughts" (four references), "guilty thoughts" (T-31.VII.7:5), a "thought of love" (three references), and "a thought of pure joy" (M-16.6:2). In all cases, the feeling (anger, fear, guilt, love, joy) is actually a thought. In light of these references, we might say that a feeling is simply the experience of the thought that we have chosen. It is how it feels to think that thought. It is the "taste" of that thought. You stick a piece of cinnamon candy in your mouth and you experience the taste of cinnamon. You stick a guilty thought in your mind and you experience the feeling of guilt. What we call the feeling of guilt is just the "flavor" of that guilty thought.

Popular "truth": Validating your feelings is an important part of accepting yourself and realizing that you are not crazy.

A perspective I have heard from people in therapy is, "My feelings are valid (meaning, they have some sound basis; they are justified). After they are validated, then I can go through a process of letting them go." That, unfortunately, is an exact parallel to what The Song of Prayer calls "forgiveness-to-destroy," in which we say, "My resentment is justified, but now I'm going to let it go." If the feeling is valid, justified, how can you really let it go?

Course teaching: You are crazy.

The following passage illustrates the Course's total lack of respect for the sacred importance of our feelings:

You who are sometimes sad and sometimes angry; who sometimes feel your just due is not given you, and your best efforts meet with lack of appreciation and even contempt; give up these foolish thoughts! (M-15.3:1)

Jesus is not exactly validating our feelings here. He is taking one of the most universal sets of human feelings and telling us that, rather than valid and justified, it is just a bunch of "foolish thoughts." He is telling us that our feelings are crazy.

Popular "truth": Feelings are natural impulses, like hunger and sexual desire, that arise in us of their own accord.

While the idea that our feelings arise in us of their own accord may relieve (or maybe just obscure) guilt over our unpleasant feelings, there is a definite downside to it. In this perspective, we are at the mercy of our feelings. We are their victims.

Course teaching: We choose what we feel. It does not arise in us naturally.

The Course has the opposite approach: everything we feel, everything we have ever felt, we have chosen, on purpose. It says quite simply, "I choose the feelings I experience" (T-21.II.2:4). And we choose those feelings by choosing what to think.

Popular "truth": Feelings are inherently healthy, innocent, and good. The ability to feel them without impediment or judgment is an important spiritual virtue. If you can take your judgments off your feelings, any feeling becomes the sacred and beautiful thing it really is.

Course teaching: Your feelings are the telltale signs of the thoughts you have chosen. You can use them to judge how well you have stepped away from the ego.

In the Course, feelings are not inherently good. Ego-based feelings such as anger, fear, guilt, hate, worry, grief, etc., are both inherently painful and inherently attacking. Rather than letting them flow without judgment, the Course actually tells us to look at them and use them as a gauge for how well we have managed to relinquish our ego. After telling us to step away from the ego's beliefs, the Course says, "Judge how well you have done this by your own feelings, for this is the one right use of judgment" (T-4.IV.8:6).

Let's face it, we don't always know when we have chosen the ego, but our feelings can tell us. Ego-based feelings are like that noise you hear from your car engine, telling you something is wrong. You don't just let the noise flow as the beautiful thing it is. You see it as the sign that it's time to take the car into the shop.

Popular "truth": Fully feeling and expressing your negative feelings is an important part of releasing them.

If there are pillars of conventional spiritual/psychological wisdom, one of them has to be that you need to fully feel and express them before they can be healed. And whatever you do, do not rush yourself through this. Not feeling your feelings and not letting them run their course is seen as perhaps the biggest violation of the healing process.

Course teaching: Do not deny your negative feelings. Instead, look upon them calmly. They are no big deal. And then quickly choose a different thought.

The Course's repeated counsel about how to treat any of the ego's manifestations within us is to look upon them calmly and dispassionately. It tells us to "watch them come and go as dispassionately as possible" (W-pI.31.3:3), "with as little investment as possible" (W-pI.8.4:3), as if "you are watching an oddly assorted procession going by, which has little if any personal meaning to you" (W-pI.10.4:6).

Then, once you calmly and dispassionately observe your feelings, the Workbook emphasizes that you should respond with a corrective thought immediately (Lessons 32, 33, 37, 73), instantly (Lessons 33, 136, 161), and quickly (Lessons 68, 77, 79, 80, 133), rather than sitting there and stewing on your upset. If feelings truly are the effect of thought, then they are not their own force and they don't need to be allowed to run their course. They are like a lamp plugged into the wall. Imagine if the heat of a lamp was making the room too warm. Wouldn't it be silly to say, "Well, I guess we can turn the air-conditioner on, or turn a fan on, or drink cold drinks. We'll just have to make do until the bulb burns out"? Wouldn't you just unplug the lamp?

That is what the Course trains us to do. In Lesson 34, it instructs us to respond to feelings of "depression, anxiety or worry" (W-pI.34.6:1) by taking several minutes and repeating, "I could see peace instead of this" (W-pI.34.Heading). It then suggests we add, "I can replace my feelings of depression, anxiety or worry…with peace" (W-pI.34.6:4). That encapsulates the Course's whole attitude toward negative feelings. We don't have to take them seriously and endure them for as long as they dictate. We can just replace them—by choosing a different thought.

6 Comments

  1. Christine Crescenzi
    Posted October 18, 2015 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Wow this is great!
    Thanks Robert!
    Luv Chris

  2. Susan C
    Posted October 21, 2015 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I bump up against the presumed primacy of feelings in conversation with friends. The implication seems to be that you can’t be a supportive friend unless you unquestioningly validate feelings, full stop. But, since I practice questioning my own thoughts behind the feelings in order to get to a more peaceful place, I would appreciate some diplomatic suggestions for how to gently broach this type of inquiry/analysis with friends who don’t study the Course but who could still benefit from “demoting” feelings from the pedestal the culture has assigned them. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    • Robert Perry
      Posted October 23, 2015 at 12:33 am | Permalink

      Susan, in terms of the diplomatic suggestions you ask for, I can’t say that I’ve got this one figured out either. Obviously, you don’t want to go beyond the kind of help they are asking for. No one likes, or benefits from, preachy spiritual types. Perhaps the main thing I could recommend–to myself as well–is to ask for guidance in the moment. Even though I’m in the rough and tumble of a conversation, I often can get a shot of intuition that is extremely helpful when I ask for what to say–something that threads all the needles and is supportive while not supporting the person’s ego. So I would suggest trying that.

  3. nancy pickard
    Posted October 21, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I believe I’ve read here previously about feelings being the “flavors” of thoughts, but this is the first time I truly “got” how I can ID a feeling and then use it as a guide rope back to the thought that produced it. The gum analogy helped a lot. I can grasp that: cinnamon flavor in my mouth, and ask myself, why is it there? It’s there because I’m chewing cinnamon gum, of course! I can see why it’s so important to stay alert to the feelings I’m experiencing; if I don’t catch them until much later, I may lose the feeling thread back to the thought. Just as I could chew that gum so thoroughly I lost its flavor and could not longer remember what I was chewing.

    Because I like to nail things down with concrete examples, here is an example of using this new understanding: I’m watching a game in the American League championship series. Suddenly I had a feeling of fear. I “tasted” it. Immediately I traced it back to the thought, “We haven’t scored yet; we could lose this thing.” Just seeing that thought led to a second feeling of fear that led back to another thought: “We could lose this WHOLE thing.” Then I thought, because of what the Course has taught me, “I need to substitute this thought right away. What can I use?” It came to me to ask myself, “Do you really know, in the big picture, what is winning and what is losing? They cannot possibly mean the same in earthly terms as in Course terms. They are judgments I can’t make because I, unlike the Holy Spirit have only the tiniest most limited view of the situation, a sliver of scoreboard with two numbers on it, that’s all. Cosmically, God-fully, it must be something else.

    The flavor of the feeling that accompanied these substitution thoughts was not fearful; it was calming. The message I got was, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than the score on the board, and all things work for good in God.”

    • Robert Perry
      Posted October 23, 2015 at 12:40 am | Permalink

      Nancy, I really liked your example. I think sports is a great example of a collective illusion that means absolutely nothing. I mean, does it really matter what the stick does with the ball? And yet we suspend disbelief and allow it to mean so much. I admire your ability to catch those fear thoughts and respond to them with a different thought. That was great.

      I’m also glad that you really got the “flavor” concept and its usefulness. I can see you get that it doesn’t denigrate feelings but just puts them in their proper place in the cause and effect picture. I like your gum analogy (though I’m not sure it holds up when the gum has lost its flavor!). Here is a link to the original candy that inspired my comments:

      http://www.candywarehouse.com/products/cinnamon-fire-jolly-rancher-candy-5lb-box/

  4. nancy pickard
    Posted October 21, 2015 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I want especially to remember this:

    “If feelings truly are the effect of thought, then they are not their own force and they don’t need to be allowed to run their course.”

    !! Thank you so much.

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